Alexander Gardner image of Antietam’s Sunken Road
I wrote the piece below for the Antietam 150th and decided to republish it today for the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Between now and 2015 I will probably re-post it yet again for the remaining major milestones of the war. It is hard to believe that the sesquicentennial is more than half over.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. Last night my wife and I were watching some of the C-SPAN and other coverage, which led to a conversation about the Civil War’s role in my life. Some things have the ability to captivate us always. My list includes the Beatles, New York City, Elvis, both World Wars, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, Sinatra, and the American Civil War. Don’t ask me to explain; how does anyone know from where in the human imagination such interests arise? Now middle-aged, I have nonetheless reached that point where I am so removed from the events of my younger days to see where the roads turned. For me, the Civil War path has taken several twists.
The first was when I was ten and my uncle gave me a book of Matthew Brady photographs. I was too young to pick up on at the time but the book was a reprint of Benson J. Lossing’s History of the Civil War. Thankfully I was also too young to read the dense prose. If I had I might still be influenced by its early 20th century take on the War of the Rebellion. It was something like the Time-Life books about the Second World War many people had in their living rooms in the 1970s and 80s. Fun to look at, but not especially reliable. Still, the Civil War photo were captivating, especially to a latchkey kid whose parents had uprooted him from his home in Connecticut and transplanted to Florida before divorcing two years later. I lost the book over the years until seeing it again for $10 in a Border’s a few years ago. I shelled out the money but eventually gave the book away, worried about the accuracy not just of the text but even the captions on the photographs themselves. For starters, we now know that many “Brady” photos were actually taken by Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, or other members of Brady’s studio. The captions on old photographs are often wrong as well. I have read my Frassanito.
I got away from the Civil War during my high school and college years but had my interest piqued again when Ken Burns’s documentary was released in 1990. It is a dramatic film, beautifully choreographed, that inspired many of us to delve more into the literature. This in turn led me to purchase Bruce Catton’s American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War when it was re-released with updated maps, art work, and photographs in 1996. At this time I was going to graduate school and working fullltime at a large chain bookstore to make ends meet. Often I worked until midnight and came home too wound up to go to sleep immediately. I would sit at my tiny kitchen table eating my 1:00 am dinner and reading Catton’s lyrical prose. I was still too young and unaware that Catton was part of any historiographical “school.” Ironically, I never took a Civil War class in either grad or undergraduate school. This is especially unfortunate because I did my undergraduate work at the University of Houston and could have studied with Joseph Glatthaar.
The next turn came with the release of Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic in 1998. Many readers enjoyed it for its anecdotes about the levels of farbiness one finds at Civil War reenactments. What I most took from the book though was how little we know about the war, despite the tens of thousands of books written on the subject. Self serving regimental histories. Lost Cause mythology. The foggy memories of aging veterans visiting the battlefields of their youth. Flaws in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. It was all new to me. It was (and is) terrifying also to think that everything one knows about something could be wrong. Even worse is realizing that there might be no way ever to know the full story of something, even by extension one’s own life. The next year I visited Shiloh for the first time when I went out to visit my dad. Other than a quick one hour stop at Fredericksburg in 1997 when I got off the freeway during my move to New York, I had never visited a Civil War battlefield before. After that we visited Pea Ridge, Vicksburg, and Shiloh again. This is where I became fixated on the myths and memory of the war.
In 2008 I visited Gettysburg for the time, and the following year I went back with the woman who became my wife a few months later. That year we also went to Sharpsburg in what has become something of an annual pilgrimage. There is no substitute to walking a Civil War battlefield. On that same trip we also visited Harper’s Ferry on what was the anniversary year of John Brown’s raid. This got me thinking harder about the sesquicentennial and the opportunity it presented to think harder about American Civil War and its place in our history. I never romanticized the Civil War–and I was certainly never a Lost Causer–but I believe I think more critically and less sentimentally about that conflict than I might have when I was younger. This in turn led to another path, the one I am on now, where I started this blog to make the leap from buff to serious writer. I feel I am now finding my niche, which include the Civil War in New York, and Civil War veterans in the Gilded Age among other aspects.
In a nutshell that is the Civil War in my life. Last night, looking at the images from over the weekend on the Antietam NPS Facebook page, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the children taken to the event by their parents will become captivated by this tragic event in our history. Some will forget almost immediately, but years from now others will look back on the commemoration of 2011-2015 as the spark that started it all.